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Mexico City opens the 1st of 300 planned soup kitchens

With her modest earnings as a seamstress and her grown children out of work, Esperanza Jose is like thousands of Mexicans finding it harder to make ends meet. And so she decided to take advantage of the city government’s new soup kitchen, the first of 300 planned by March.

“The truth is that there are a lot of people that now don’t have jobs, and so if they’re offering this, we should make the most of it,” said Jose, 63. “Many people are embarrassed to come; but, well, we come with dignity.”

As Mexico slips into the profound economic crisis circling the globe, unemployment is rising along with food prices. Inflation is running about 8% annually, but some basic “family basket” items such as cooking oil and rice are going up about 200% a year, said Cesar Cravioto, head of the city’s Institute of Social Assistance.

City officials hope to dish out 65,000 free or inexpensive meals a day at the soup kitchens, he said.

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“The crisis is hitting hard, and it worries us a lot,” Cravioto said, noting that the number of people who receive unemployment payouts is expected to double this year in this city of 19 million.

The first soup kitchen, at a community center called Casa de la Luna (House of the Moon), opened this month in the working-class Pedregal de Santa Ursula neighborhood in southern Mexico City. It was packed, despite cold weather and rain. Workers filled plastic plates with chicken, rice and beans, and handed out cups of sweet watermelon-flavored water.

Most of the beneficiaries were elderly people or single mothers with their children in tow. While not homeless, they are unemployed or live on small incomes that are being stretched to the limit.

“Many people suffer because food is so indispensable,” said Laura Gonzales, a 37-year-old homemaker who said she came to the canteen out of curiosity with her mother and small daughter. “So it’s great that there are these places to eat because, in truth, there are those who don’t have anything to eat.”

The city says it plans to eventually spend about $14 million on the feeding network. Some kitchens will provide food for free and others will ask for a small donation equivalent to about 70 cents to help subsidize electricity, cooking gas and other expenses.

Given Mexico’s high level of endemic poverty, it is perhaps most surprising that the city government had not set up a feeding program before now. Traditionally, in the capital at least, most Mexicans, no matter how poor, manage to eat, though the meal might consist of little more than tortillas and a gruel-like soup. That may be changing, and organizers suggest the crisis will only deepen as food gets more expensive.

“Around this neighborhood, there are a lot of highly marginalized zones and a lot of poverty,” said Jabnely Maldonado Meza, 29, who helps oversee the Casa de la Luna kitchen. “We serve everyone who wants to be fed. . . . Sometimes whole families come to eat here.”

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Times staff writer Tracy Wilkinson contributed to this report.


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